“Victor Frankenstein” opens Wednesday at Point, Palace and AMC Fitchburg, PG-13, 1:49, one star out of four.
In the terrible 2004 film “Van Helsing,” Frankenstein makes a cameo appearance along with Dracula and the Wolfman, swinging on a giant chain like Tarzan. “Victor Frankenstein” is only slightly less ridiculous than that.
I expected the latest iteration of the Frankenstein franchise to be bad, but would it be enjoyably bad? Then, in the first scene, we see Daniel Radcliffe capering about as a hunchback in clown makeup, and I thought, “Go on . . . I’m listening.”
“Victor F” is indeed delightfully terrible for good stretches, as awful ideas mix with overwrought performances and a general air of confusion over what sort of movie everybody’s trying to make, anyway. First of all, although the movie is called “Victor Frankenstein,’ it’s really more about Igor (Radcliffe), a carnival freak who Frankenstein (James MacAvoy) rescues after he discovers that Igor is a self-taught brilliant doctor.
Let’s let that sink in a minute. A hunchbacked carnival freak who is also a self-taught brilliant doctor. And nobody makes a “laughter is the best medicine” joke? Must I do everything around here?
Anyway, Victor is a med-school washout who wants Igor to help him with his mad experiments, which involve, as you know, reanimating dead flesh. Victor starts small, with an animal made out of discarded animal parts from the local zoo, mostly chimpanzee, which of course goes haywire. This raises the attention of the Javert-like Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott of “Sherlock”), who believes Frankenstein’s experiments are the work of Satan. Setting the struggle between Turpin and Frankenstein as one of faith vs. science feels really unsavory, and also unnecessary; you don’t have to go to church every Sunday to find the idea of an electrified zombie chimp sort of unsettling.
The most radical thing that “Victor F” does to Mary Shelley’s enduring horror story is that it makes Igor not just an assistant to Frankenstein, but a friend, intellectual equal and moral superior. As Frankenstein sinks deeper into madness, Igor becomes increasingly uneasy with the idea of bringing the dead to life. It all ends in a magnificently designed CGI Scottish castle, where there is much rain and explosions and people hanging from ledges and things.
This could have worked in a lurid, campy, Hammer House of Horror sort of approach, but “Victor Frankenstein” is too pretty and too serious, so most of the fun is unintentional. Director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Max Landis in particular don’t know what to do with Frankenstein, whether to make him a villain, a flawed hero, or a merry Robert Downey Jr. in “Sherlock Holmes” kind of hero. So they go for all three, and add the expected backstory that all this is just for him to work through some buried childhood trauma. He needs less time in the lab and more time on the couch.
MacAvoy gamely tries to navigate the inconsistencies in his character by delivering a scenery-chewing, spittle-flying performance that is at least fun to watch, while Radcliffe tries to bring a little dignity to poor Igor. But it all kind of lurches around blindly before collapsing in a heap. It’s not alive — NOT ALIVE!